IT was only a few more days before Merdeka was declared in 1957. I had just turned 11 and was lounging with some boys at the corner of a quarters’ block in the Police Depot (now Pulapol), off Gurney Road in Kuala Lumpur.
We were barefooted and wearing shabby shirts and shorts, but were in an exuberant and expectant mood. Then, we got into lambasting the orang putih, who had to balik negeri soon.
None of them escaped our naive contempt and ridicule. High commissioners, government officials, traders, soldiers — we fired away unabashedly with our snide remarks.
“Now they will return home without a job. Maybe they will have to drive taxis and buses, or even beg for a living. Let them!”
The fervour and disdain was as intense as any young boy during those days could muster. We were also wishful and full of hope.
“We should be senang (well off) after this because we shall govern the country and have control of our kekayaan (wealth). We will not be poor anymore as we will get to own this wealth. We can defend the country and our soldiers will fight and defeat the pengganas komunis (communist terrorists or CTs) by ourselves.”
All these we gleefully said in between laughter and giggles.
There was only one lone cautious voice, a slightly older boy, who sounded out his apprehension as to whether things could happen that easily since the country was still undeveloped and not rich.
His concern was quickly dismissed by another boy as we continued to talk about the bliss that was to come. I had written about this before but will re-live it anyway as it is quite incredulous. It is an insignificant happening, yet a memorable one deeply etched in memory.
The conversations were reflective of the feelings at that time with the coming of Merdeka. They were also innocent expressions of our hopes and fears as boys. Boys who went on to become men, and be with the country on its journey forward and, eventually, to witness the present.
The feelings should not be too difficult to comprehend. We were of the generation born just after the war and survived the difficult post-war period. Then, we grew up during the period of the first Emergency, which was declared in 1948 and saw the consequences of the communist revolt on the Malay peninsula.
The conflict was a civil war, and we felt the threats, dangers and fears from perennial dusk-to-dawn curfews, the security checkpoints, the identification checks of people, the barbed wire entanglements and seeing soldiers and policemen of all shades, size and colour always around us.
In the air, ex-Battle of Britain pilots flew their fighters and bombers, at times dropping leaflets instead of bombs, which thrilled us as much as it reminded that the communist threat was real. At the same time, Radio Malaya and the Information Department broadcast frequently anti-communist messages and news of the Special Forces’ contacts with CTs, and their numbers killed or captured.
All of these were seen and felt while being conscious of our subservience to the orang putih, who remained unchallenged as the lord and tuan.
We were, therefore, in some disbelief that we would be gaining independence.
An uncertainty that was put to rest when the Union Jack was finally lowered and the flag of the Federation of Malaya raised in its place at the Selangor Club padang (now Dataran Merdeka).
The next morning, on Aug 31, Tunku Abdul Rahman formally declared the country’s independence and led all at Stadium Merdeka to shouts of Merdeka!
But, as the days went by, we realised that it took more than shouting “Merdeka” to build a country and a nation. It required vision, leadership, time and a lot of hard work and sacrifices. Thus, other than the immediate change of government and leadership, things moved rather slowly and gradually forward during the first few years of independence.
The Emergency was declared over in 1960 although the communist threat continued to loom. Hundreds of CTs remained active at the Malaya-Thailand border, operating from their sanctuary in southern Thailand. The government sought to contain this threat while focusing on the unity and uplifting of the standard of living of the population.
On the personal side, life continued to be hard for all of us at the Police Depot. In school, we had to survive only on my father’s low policeman’s pay.
The hopeful imaginings of bliss did not materialise as quickly as we had thought, and soon, they were temporarily forgotten. The older boy was right. We had first to study and work hard in order to attain progress and security.
The kampung stay during school holidays were the best times for us. It provided pure happy moments — gathering mangosteens, rambutans and durians when they were in season, and then pampered by my maternal grandmother when the better-off cousins were not around.
My mother and father became noticeably resigned to the drudgery of a hard life, constant work and the small rewards. Thankfully, they persevered without ever showing any sign of despair or of wanting to give up. This grit is their greatest example for me to follow in my own adult life.
A significant happening occurred in the late 1960s, when my father became the personal bodyguard of the Raja of Perlis, the third Yang Dipertuan Agong.
We were initially excited when we had to move into Istana Negara, but were quite dismayed by the small and windowless workers’ quarters. My parents, however, remained unperturbed and laboured constantly to make the quarters more habitable.
By then, I was in High Street Secondary School (Jalan Bandar), which would have been a convenient 2km walk from Istana Negara, downhill past the Selangor Indian Association building and padang, the Kampung Atap railway quarters, and finally, across High Street, if not for the school having to be renamed High School and relocated to Ayer Panas in Setapak.
This entailed a longer and tiring walk for me to go past High Street, Foch Avenue, the Central Market and Malacca Street to take the Len Seng (or was it Tong Fong?) buses to Ayer Panas.
The toil was hard and there were times when I wondered if I could ever succeed in my studies if not for the steadfastness shown by my parents, and the understanding and comradeship shown by my teachers and friends of all races at school.
Somehow, I survived it all to be in Form Five in 1963. There was some excitement when Malaysia was formed in September that year. However, the joy and pride following the formation was somewhat dashed to some extent by the beat of war drums that came from Sukarno’s Indonesia, which launched Konfrantasi and vowed to crush Malaysia.
Indonesian forces attacked our border outposts and even landed in Pontian and Labis in Johor. There was a real feeling of danger to the country then, as well as anger at Sukarno’s regime.
Konfrantasi produced a very profound effect on the population. It got people to be more united and patriotic, with many joining the armed forces, police and other security agencies to fight for our king and country. It also got me to enlist in the army, and I reported to the Federation Military College for officer cadet training in February 1965.
I suppose it was opportune and that it was also the time to make good on what we had boasted of when we were mere boys just before Aug 31, 1957. Merdeka!
This is Part 1 of 4 the writer has written for the My Country My Nation series. The second part will appear next week.
LT JEN (RTD) DATUK SERI ZAINI MOHD SAID, a former army field commander and recipient of the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa, M’sia’s highest gallantry award, is well known for his role during the Al-Maunah siege in Sauk, Perak, in July 2000.